Notes on Learning Dance
By Uma Katju
In this article, I write about my experience of dance training. Learning classical dance over the last few years has provoked questions about the pedagogy, and doubts on whether it’s a useful path for my training and practice.
I’m an actor and have often looked to my theatre training to throw light on my experience of dance. My interest isn’t really in creating or upholding strict disciplinary boundaries or building hierarchies where none exist. Rather, I’ve perceived differences in the pedagogy, and I feel these differences may hold clues for my discomfort with the dance training, and illuminate my own needs and desires in performance training and making. They are the questions to which my practice thus far has brought me. So, here I will articulate some of these differences, simply as thoughts or as questions.
I started learning Odissi dance in 2017 when I was creating a solo theatre piece with a short dance in it. It was my final year in theatre school, and I realized that despite my physical training, I couldn’t move my feet! And so I decided to go to dance classes.
At the time, I was working as a musician with the dancers at Chowk, a Singapore-based company, in a series of performances where they explored the grammar of the Odissi Pallavi, the pure dance. The first time I watched the dancers, all the movements and steps merged into an indecipherable blur in my mind. But, as I slowly began observing the dance and the dancers’ process, I grew to enjoy and love the form’s beauty and strength. So when I thought of going for a dance class, Odissi became the obvious choice.
Learning Odissi was initially very exhilarating as I found myself practicing the same steps and movements that I witnessed the dancers perform so beautifully. But over time, it became a place of anxieties regarding the form, leading me to periodically question why I am learning it at all.
My doubts sometimes exploded into questions and counter-questions, like a few months ago when I watched a practice video I’d made:
Why is my imagination missing? Why don’t I see the images and feel I’m actually a mad elephant in the springtime? But isn’t the choreography essentially representational? But isn’t that making excuses – blaming the choreography? But isn’t the abhinaya really boring anyway? It’s on me to bring the dance to life. It can’t simply be about technical things like sitting more and pushing the torso. But technical things are the reason I started to go to dance class in the first place – ‘I can’t move my feet, my coordination is bad, etc.’
Sometimes it’s been more of an unsettling feeling, a worry about how the form is shaping me: If I keep going for Odissi, this is all I’ll be able to do eventually. The energy is so contained and prim, it’s only about being beautiful.
And the constant back-and-forth: I don’t want to do it anymore. But I’ve done it for a while, and I’m finally developing a flow and sitting more – do I want to give that up? But everything can’t be about sitting more!
And: Why am I making so many practice videos? Everything can’t be about the external form.
There have been times when I’ve left classes feeling unable to speak like my voice is completely blocked.
I often look for perspective on my experiences with dance in my actor training, because even as I faced many difficult and confronting moments in the latter, I never questioned why I was putting myself through it. I studied at a school which juxtaposes immersions in traditional theatres with contemporary theatre practices. The training was both freeing and grounding, and I found immense possibilities in even the theatre forms I found most difficult to internalize.
Over time, I’ve found two differences in the pedagogy which I write about below.
The first involves the voice. In the classical dance classes I’ve attended, there is no real emphasis on engaging our voice. Sometimes we learn and speak the choreography’s ukuta (the vaitaari or rhythm) as we dance. This however is essentially to mark the rhythm and footwork and is not an exploration of voice. In one way, it does make sense because dancers eventually perform the choreography without any vocalization. The dancers express physically, i.e., by moving and physical choreography. I once heard a dancer say that the body is so expressive, the voice isn’t really needed.
In theatre training and practice, the voice is a very significant part of what we do. The common understanding of actors’ voice-work (and work in general!) is that actors speak text or ‘lines’. Indeed, speaking text is a challenging aspect of an actor’s work, and many theatre methods are engaged in how actors can internalize and bring it alive.
But there are, in actuality, a range of voice practices beyond text-work across theatre forms. For example, in traditional theatres, actors speak, sing, chant, and vocalize in many different ways. In my traditional theatre training, the teachers would start our classes with voice training – depending on the form, we would either chant or sing and then continue with learning the physical form – gestures, actions or scene work.
I now understand that the form’s energy resides in the vocal work as well as the physical gestures and actions. For example, in Kutiyattam the tone and energy of the chanting changes for different characters, even within the same rasa. So we access the form’s energy vocally as well as through physical gestures and actions.
So why and how has voice come to be understood as separate from body and physicality? Rather, I feel that engaging the voice means that breath is engaged. So the voice is much more than the ways in which we engage it; voice, like breath, is actually energy. Voice is the body.
While I’ve always enjoyed voice work, the significance of the voice in theatre and performance practice struck me only last year. In a course at my university, I was asked to teach practical sessions complementing the theoretical classes of my colleagues. Among the latter were P. Rajagopal and Hanne De Bruin. Rajagopal sir is a Kattaikkuttu actor and master, Hanne is a performance scholar, and both are associated with the Kattaikkuttu Sangam in Kanchipuram. Before my first session, Hanne suggested: “Start with the voice. Rajagopal always starts with the voice. We keep prioritizing movement, but there’s something about the voice.” I am so grateful to Hanne and Rajagopal sir for this incredible insight, which led me to understand my own training, teaching, and practice in a different way. In my teaching, the students have enjoyed the voice work quite quickly. Their energies change when we sing, chant, or vocalize. It’s made some of them feel vulnerable, but equally, it’s made them quite free.
In my practice, I am interested in a physical approach to the voice. Continuing from my learnings in theatre, both traditional and contemporary, I believe that the entire body is engaged in producing voice. The voice is intricately tied to our physicality, and the combining of voice and movement is what interests me. Specific to Odissi, I’ve now started to incorporate voice work of different kinds when I practice. When I engage my breath and voice, I feel more centered, present, and alive in my actions. Late in 2020, I attended Navtej’s abhinaya workshop which focussed on the padam. I noticed that whenever I sang the padam, or connected to the singing of Venkat, our accompanist, I felt much more alive in the gestures.
In hindsight, my first encounter with Odissi has also been through voice. My work in Chowk’s Pallavi Series mentioned earlier, spread over four years, included both creating original music with my fellow musicians and singing the traditional pallavis.
My personal research, over the performances, was in finding the kinaesthetic connection between the dancers’ bodies and movement and my voice. It was an exercise of vocally embodying the dance. I would follow the dancers’ movements physically while singing and thus allow my breath and voice to be moved. It required listening and being connected with the dancers in each moment of rehearsal and performance. My practice for the performances included voice-body exercises learned in my actor’s training; especially those of the Javanese master Bambang Mbesur Suryono. So I realize now my initiation into Odissi/dance was embodied but through my voice.
The second question I have encountered while learning dance is: what is the space for imagination in classical dance learning? Of course, we need to learn the technique and technicalities before overlaying with our own visualizations, images, and emotions, and find our journey in the choreography. Even in theatre performance and learning, the process is often similar. But somehow, the dance form feels very technical.
Earlier I would tell myself that the imagination in the dance would probably become clearer when I started learning complex abhinaya pieces. But my question now is – does the imagination involve only detailed visualization of scenes or characters, specific to or directed towards the choreography?
There appear to be numerous ways of engaging the imagination in different physical and performance practices. For example, some seem to offer an imagination of the body. In Desikachar’s text, The Heart of Yoga, there is a mention of kundalini. When asked about the snake at the base of the spine and the explosive rising of kundalini energy, he replies that these images should not be taken literally because that leads to superstition and mysticism. They are instead poetic images. And through this powerful poetic image and suggestion, yoga seems to offer us a whole imagination of the body, as a powerful coiled snake, slowly awakening through practice.
The imagination has also been approached through sensorial experiences. For example, Navarasa Sadhana of Kutiyattam master G.Venu partly involves engaging all the senses – sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste – to quite literally feed the imagination. As the senses are engaged, the imagination in turn starts to come alive. Different emotions are born through a sensorially and imaginatively rich experience.
These opportunities of experiencing our bodies and imaginations wholly and in these powerful ways somehow feels missing in classical dance training.
But I wonder if it is so, even in pure dance. I have spent a lot of time watching Kelucharan Mohapatra’s choreography of Aravi Pallavi. It’s one of my favorites, and also one of the traditional pieces performed by the Chowk dancers in the Pallavi Series.
To me, the dance is all about the sea and the waves – small, gentle, swelling, crashing, thunderous. In Kumar Shahani’s film Bhavantarana, Kelucharan Mohapatra has danced the pallavi on the beach. When I first watched the film, I was struck by how the setting corresponded with what I had perceived in the movement and body. I felt that his imagination must have been so full when he choreographed this pure dance piece. And so, is pure dance simply technical, a rhythmic development from one step to another, the raag physically unfolding?
I’m left with these questions: Was there an engagement with or inspiration from the space and senses in choreographing the ‘pure dance’? How did Kelucharan Mohapatra teach his pallavis to the students, what did he prioritize while teaching, and how has the teaching changed as the form has developed?
Recently, I realized I had to pause and dig into the discomfort and unsettling feelings, rather than continuing to go on for a sense of physical achievement. Often the excitement of learning a new choreography obscures the doubts and questions for a while. But then they return stronger. And I feel the answers to my questions, observations, and hunches, lie in practice. Maybe I won’t find proper answers, but paths of study, research, and improvisation. Paths requiring practice, and leading to more paths.
Uma is an actor and theatre practitioner from Delhi, interested in traversing disciplines in the performing arts to find their meeting point in her practice. A graduate of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI), Singapore, she continues to study traditional theatre and dance forms to draw lessons for performer training and theatre-making. As a theatre-maker Uma is drawn to devised and collaborative processes. Her works include Mrichchhakatika (2020) and Circling.Pieces (2020). She is currently a Visiting Faculty at Ashoka University, teaching courses on voice-body practices, Asian theatre forms, and performance skills.